4.54. Luciano Berio, cantata ‘Shofar’ (1995)

The Europäisches Musikfest Stuttgart was founded in Germany in 1985, as an international summer festival with concerts, lectures and master classes. The initiators, the Bach Akademie Stuttgart and their conductor Helmuth Rilling, decided to commemorate the end of World War II in the Festival of 1995. Fourteen composers from countries which had been involved in the war were asked to write a part of a Latin Requiem of Reconciliation, which would be performed by the Gächinger Kantorei, the Chamber Choir of Kraków, Poland, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Thirteen composers accepted the commission. The Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), however, had objections: as a non-believer, he did not feel like contributing to a Catholic requiem and moreover, he expected it to become a musical “one-pan meal.” Eventually, he made a contribution entitled Hör (“Hear”) and his wife, the Israeli musicologist Talia Pecker, told how it came about:

As far as I remember, Berio accepted to participate in the Requiem project only on the condition that Hor [sic] is performed as a prologue to the unique performance in Stuttgart. Once this condition was accepted by Helmut Rilling, Berio composed the piece specifically for that event, which we both attended. He then used the material of Hor in Outis and renamed Hor as Shofar so it could be performed as an independent piece. *Talia Pecker Berio, e-mail to the author, March 17, 2011. Outis (1996) is a music theater piece.

Hör has nothing to do with the Latin requiem, as its character is Jewish and the text consists of the German poem Die Posaunenstelle (“The Shofar Place”) by Paul Celan, that was discussed in Chapter 4.42. Hör, in English “Hear” and in Hebrew “Shema,” is the first word of the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Israel, a call to listen as well as the beginning of a dialogue. Berio enters into a dialogue with the Requiem of Reconciliation, with the requiem in general, with Christianity, with Celan’s poem (which itself can be considered a dialogue with an archaeological find), *Cf. Chapter 4.42 and as we shall see, with shofar blowing. That Berio—according to the above-quoted statement of his wife—participated in the Requiem of Reconciliation project on the condition that Hör should be the prologue to the requiem, suggests that he was of the opinion that reconciliation after the Shoah should begin with listening to the Jewish voice.

Though Shofar only lasts five minutes, it requires a large ensemble: a mixed chorus and a symphony orchestra, extended with saxophones, marimbaphone, celesta, piano, accordion and electronic organ. It is not the composition of an intact poem, but instead, the musical expression of its essence: the attitude towards the divine mystery. With its combination of loud voices and brass instruments it resembles the teruʿah as a shofar blowing and shouting ritual in praise of God’s kingship, as in Ps. 47:6: “God ascends midst acclamation (teruʿah); / the LORD, to blasts of the horn (shofar)” and Ps. 89:16: “Happy is the people who know the joyful shout (teruʿah); / O LORD, they walk in the light of Your presence.” *Cf. Humbert, La “Terouʿa” 30-4.

Berio does not aim at an understanding of Celan’s poem; instead, he makes it even more hermetic and fragmented by breaking up sentences into words, words into syllables, and syllables into speech sounds. Physical manifestations of religious emotions appear in a stylized form: the chattering of teeth before the awesome God becomes a “very fast dental tremolo – come gli stromenti” (“just as the instruments”) on long notes; and holding one’s breath in awe for the mystery assumes the form of a medieval hoquetus (musical “hiccup”) with the sopranos and altos alternately singing one syllable (“Po-sau-nen-stel-le”). Below, an example of the disintegration of the poem’s first three lines: “Die Posaunenstelle / tief im glühenden / Leertext” (“The shofar place / deep in the glowing / empty-text”), in the soprano part between the rehearsal marks A and F; long notes have a dash added and the syllables sung with “dental tremolo” are italicized:

Die Die Die— Die Posau—ne— Die Posaunenstel—le Die— Die Posaunenstelle— Tief— Tief— Tief— Tief— Tief— Im Im Im Tief— Tief im— glühenden tief im glü im glühenden glühenden glühenden— Leertext Leer—text— Die— Posaunenstelle tief im glühenden Leertext

In some passages, Berio’s language is even more hermetic than Celan’s and there he uses phonetic symbols instead of letters. Before Celan’s poem begins, the choir sings the following sounds: “[i]———[ɔ] [a] Die [u] [ɔ]———[a].” The square brackets, sometimes used to mark phonetic symbols, are in the score and the long dashes indicate glissandos. It could be that these sounds have no semantic meaning and are meant to bridge the gap between voices and instruments. However, in Berio’s native language, Italian, they provide the following sentence: “Io a Diu o a . . .” Diu (Dio in Standard Italian) is the word for “God” in a number of Italian dialects, and the meaning of the unfinished sentence would then be “I to God or to . . .” and express religious or existential doubt.

The musical core of Shofar consists of free variants of the traditional shofar blasts in the trombone—called Posaune in German, just like the shofar—and Berio marks these blasts with “[SHOFAR].” At the beginning of the composition, the 1st trombone plays a TaShRaT, consisting of a tekiʿah with an upward glissando over a 2nd instead of a 5th; a shevarim with tone repetition instead of three upward 5ths; a teruʿah with the characteristic tone repetition; and again a tekiʿah. Due to the doubling in other wind and string instruments, this passage sounds extraordinarily powerful. These blasts constitute one of the four layers of which Shofar is made up:

1. the above-mentioned shofar blasts in free variants, with a powerful and energetic sound;

2. a sound field defined by tremolo. There are different rhythms in different speeds and as a result, the sound field lacks a clear pulse. The instruments enter in sequence, playing a free canon. In detail, this layer is highly differentiated and agile, while the whole makes a static impression. The tone repetitions are diminutions of the trombone’s teruʿah, while they also fit in with the “dental tremolo” of the singers;

3. a sound field consisting of chord figurations, giving a harmonically diffuse overall impression;

4. polyphonic choral passages, showing a certain similarity with Renaissance polyphony by their restricted range, imitation technique, hoquetus technique and slow harmonic cadences.

These passages are notable for their passionate character.
Both apart and together, these different layers express the mysterium tremendum, analyzed by the theologian Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy (1917). Otto describes the effect of the mysterium tremendum or “awe-inspiring mystery” as follows:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.. . . It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures. *Otto, The Idea of the Holy 12-3.

In the numinous, defined by the mysterium tremendum, Otto distinguishes four elements: *Ibid. 12-30

1. the element of awefulness (tremendum);

2. the element of “overpoweringness” (majestas), before which man feels weak and helpless;

3. the element of “energy” or urgency, related to God’s deeds of love or wrath;

4. the “Wholly Other” (mysterium), surpassing human understanding.

These are also essential elements of the liturgy of Yom Kippur, one of the Days of “Awe”: the tremendum is expressed in “angels rush forward, / and are held by trembling, shaking;” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 842 the majestas in “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him for His surpassing greatness;” *Ibid. 542 and Ps. 150. the energy in “the upright will exult, and the pious revel in joy, . . . and all wickedness will fade away like smoke;” *Ibid. 864 and the mysterium in “Just as I leap toward you but cannot touch you[.]” *Ibid. 1248. The meaning of the Hebrew word Kippur (“atonement” or “reconciliation”) is even in line with the title Requiem of Reconciliation. Moreover, the four religious elements exactly fit the four musical layers of Berio’s Shofar: the tremendum, the “tremolo” passages; the majestas, the sound fields with their chord figurations; the “energy,” the shofar blasts; and the mysterium, the polyphonic choral passages.

Paradoxically, the effect of the mysterium tremendum in Shofar depends largely on Bakhtinian hybridization, in this case an alienating use of clichés from distant musical spheres. The trumpet with the wah-wah mute does not sound like a nightclub singer, but like a voice choked by religious shudder; the trombone glissando is not a Dixieland effect, but an expression of divine power; and the usually cheerful and superficial accordion is transformed into an organ of intimate devotion. The falling 2nd, the cliché par excellence of the seufzer from the Baroque lamento, is inverted into a upward 2nd and an expression of desire for higher things.

Another paradox in this highly expressive music is the practical impossibility of performing the parts with romantic expression; to an either very soft or very loud tremolo, an instrumentalist can hardly add any expression, while the performance of a singer with chattering teeth is limited. This non-subjective way of playing resembles the character of shofar blowing in the synagogue: “If its sound is thin, thick or dry, it is valid, since all sounds emitted by a shofar can pass muster.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b.

Berio prevents the listeners from being carried away by the music and he states elsewhere: “I will not concern myself here with music as an emotional and reassuring commodity for the listener.” *Berio, Remembering the Future 2. With regard to dynamics, Shofar has an overpowering beginning followed by a long anticlimax. At three quarters of the total duration, the shuddering comes abruptly to an end, to make way for a quiet passage of the accordion with a restrained accompaniment. What the accordion plays here very softly is the rising 2nd D-E♭, a transposition of the augmented unison C-C♯, the interval of the energetic trombone tekiʿah from the beginning. Of all instruments, the cheerful, secular accordion creates the moment of repentance, the teshuvah of the Days of Awe. By bringing the highly dynamic music to a complete halt, Berio changes the listener’s experience of time, and perhaps this is his interpretation of the “negative” chronotope of the Zeitloch (“timehole”) in Celan’s poem. The powerful shofar-like trombone with its “sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul” *Otto, The Idea of the Holy 12 and the subdued accordion with its “tranquil mood of deepest worship” *Ibid. 12 give voice to two sides of the same mysterium tremendum. The trombone’s augmented unison turns into the enharmonic equivalent of the accordion’s minor 2nd, while the authoritative discourse of the trombone’s shofar blasts turns into the internally persuasive discourse of the accordion’s rising seufzer.

In Shofar, the musical Present is directed by the Past of traditional shofar blasts, while the Present is indirectly directed by the Past of Paul Celan’s poem Die Posaunenstelle. At the same time, the Past is altered by the Present: Berio’s point of departure was the commemoration of the Shoah, and moreover adding a modern Jewish prologue to the traditional Catholic mass.

Berio’s Shofar has some points in common with The Calling, the part of Elgar’s The Apostles in which the shofar is blown. *Chapter 4.5. Both of them are compositions with Jewish elements, composed by a non-Jewish composer; both are parts of a monumental, Christian work for chorus and orchestra about the life and death of Jesus; and both evocate the shofar and the chronotope of the Temple Mount. The original title Hör and The Calling both invite a dialogue. Both composers avoid the easy way of literally quoting the traditional shofar blasts to a simple accompaniment; Elgar colors the blasts by doubling the shofar with modern instruments and integrating it into a refined orchestration, whereas Berio focuses on the rhythms of the blasts, which he varies in many ways. The differences are striking as well: though both compositions are about light, Elgar depicts a majestic sunrise: “The face of all the East is now ablaze with light, the Dawn reacheth even unto Hebron!” whereas Berio evocates a “glowing empty-text,” which is a concept instead of an image. Elgar’s triumphant shofar proclaims “the spiritual Dawn breaking for mankind,” *Jaeger, The Apostles 15 whereas Berio’s shofar proclaims the numinous. Elgar’s singers just sing, whereas Berio’s singers shudder and chatter their teeth. In 1903, at the beginning of the 20th century, Elgar’s superaddressee is a God with understandable thoughts and feelings, although they transcend the human scale; in 1995, at the end of the century, the God of Celan and Berio is a mystery, a “timehole.”


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